Experience the benefit of inclusion and representation somewhere, somehow, as a participant and as a leader. I believe in experiential education to my core. It’s easy to academically agree with the power of being heard and including diverse perspectives to shape your decisions. It is something else to experience it first hand. I think you need to fight to make that happen so you can act from experience.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’, I had the pleasure to interview Dave MacLeod, Facilitator, dreamer, outdoor educator, tech CEO and dad. Dave MacLeod is the CEO and co-founder of Thoughtexchange, the world’s most advanced platform for scaling conversations. Over the past decade, millions of people have engaged with one another on the Thoughtexchange platform and Dave and his team have worked with leaders in almost every sector to help them access their unheard majority and bring voice to their decision making.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
The best way to understand how I grew up is to imagine you unexpectedly dropped by our small house in a small town in the middle of British Columbia, Canada, at dinner time. If the door wasn’t already open, someone opens when you ring the doorbell. Maybe it would be one of my two genetically related sisters, maybe any one of my several unrelated brothers and sisters with special needs my parents also cared for, maybe a friend or cousin living with us, or maybe an elderly neighbour.
Regardless of who opens the door, they lead you to the kitchen where 10–20 people are eating together. As you approach, somehow the table magically extends and there’s a chair for you, and enough food, as if my mom knew you were coming. You try to say you don’t need to eat but it doesn’t work. As you fill your plate with casserole and fresh salad from the garden, you look around the table and see a young First Nation girl clapping and hooting, a smiling young man with an autism tick and a rancher with a hook replacing an arm he lost in the war. And this is just any old Tuesday. If it was Wednesday it was pancake night.
My parents were both special education teachers and I grew up alongside all sorts of neuro-diverse people. After visiting my home you would likely ask me, as hundreds of people have: “What’s it like growing up in a home with so many brothers and sisters and different people around all the time?”
My answer was some variation of this: What is it like for you having hands? They’ve always just been there, right? Well that’s what it’s like for me. It’s just a thing that’s part of me and I love it.
That dinner table occurred to me as the exact center point of the universe. As I got older, I was continually surprised the whole world didn’t grow up that way. I also came to recognize how privileged I was to be surrounded by so many amazing people in a house that always had enough food on the table.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Jonathan Livingston Seagull? Just kidding. Kinda. Though I mostly read non-fiction at this point in life, if I have to pick one book I’ll pick Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s a collection of some of his earliest published short stories. I loved meeting all of the Vonnegut characters who first caught the world’s attention. All of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing had a deep impact on me as he fearlessly addressed the world’s most challenging subjects with a humanist lens and a touch of humor. Sometimes more than a touch. I think his fundamental love for people was evident in everything he wrote about war and waste and the bizarre ways people treat one another. Though much of what he wrote sharply criticized our society, I couldn’t help but feel inspired and lighter for having read his stories. I think leaders have a responsibility to be sharp and critical while lifting up those around them at the same time and Vonnegut was one of my earliest teachers.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
A favorite quote of mine was shared by a school principal from Newfoundland. When we were discussing a project he said to me, “Let’s get the cod to the beach before we worry about how to cut it up.” That stuck with me. It contains teamwork, trust, priority and hope. And it’s just a thought about a fish.
I think too many people spend too much time and effort worrying and arguing about how to divide the success of an outcome when they should spend time working together to create something worth dividing.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I define leadership as the learned ability to unite people toward a cause. Maybe one or two people and the cause is simple. Maybe thousands and the cause is complex. Either way, the leader’s role is to artfully unite passionate people with worthy action. I don’t think the best thing a leader can do is “drive change by engaging and inspiring people.” Too much leadership talk suggests people must be somehow disengaged and uninspired in the first place and in need of an external savior. I’m reminded of Dilbert’s: “Don’t step in the Leadership.” Rather than fix the rank and file, I think the role of a leader is to unite the inherent inspiration and engagement of the people they lead with a cause worth working on together. Great leaders believe in people. And you don’t need to be born a leader. You can become one.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
On my best days, it’s all about exercise. Outdoors on my mountain bike or skis, or indoors on my Peloton. (On my worst days, I admit it’s cookies and strong espresso…) Thoughtexchange has been a remote-first company for over a decade and we’ve long respected the value of flexibility to allow for time in nature or in your basement on a spin-bike. I actually take many high stakes calls while walking in the woods. I once even had to mute during a board call as I scrambled away from a bear I surprised. In any event, I am a huge believer in the power of exercise and nature to help access empathy and creativity during interactions with others.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is, of course, a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
Before I tackle this, I want to share that I’m aware that in 2020, 3 out of the 500 companies in the Fortune 500 have Black CEOs and several studies in recent years found there were more CEO’s specifically named Dave than there were female CEO’s total. And I am a white CEO and my name is Dave. I may have grown up in a unique home but I’m the opposite of a minority.
I also think it’s my responsibility to recognize my privilege, work to address my bias while I educate myself on the historical context of racism against Black people as well as more broadly against BIPOC people. As a CEO, I’m actively working to improve my ability to be an anti-racist leader of an actively anti-racist organization. If you are a leader I think you need to do that too.
That said, leaders like Ibram X. Kendi have helped educate me and many others on the foundational roots of racism against Black people and I encourage you to educate yourself about Black Lives Matter and subjects such as the history of the unceeded territory you live and play on. I also won’t attempt to be a thought leader in this area.
What I would like to comment on is the right of people to their voice. I believe in our right as humans to both speak our mind as well as to be heard without fear of retaliation. And this right is not extended in most of the systems we abide within both publicly and privately.
I think humans in general have a very dark history and a proven tendency to do terrible things to one another to get ourselves ahead. And the worst part is most people see the problems we create and can imagine solutions, but, the system they are in doesn’t respect their right to their voice.
My feeling is that the world-wide reaction to the murder of George Floyd was not due to the shock and surprise about the incidents leading to his killing. It was because of the predictability of that awful outcome in a system specifically designed against Black people and their health and well being. People have been fighting to overcome racism for hundreds of years and the solutions are evident but the voice of the people who can create change has been actively repressed for generations to ensure progress didn’t happen.
I believe in the power of analogy and I think a boiling point is not accurate. I feel a better analogy is a pressure point. Our world has been dominated by people actively shutting down and covering over people and their voice. People have been boiling for generations and we are now at a point that too many people understand the negative effect racism and discrimination has on all of us and our planet. The pressure of this understanding has grown so large that it needs to be released. I heard Magic Johnson describe how Rodney King’s beating ignited the Black Community who took to the streets. The difference between that situation and the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd is that now everyone is taking to the streets. This has, thankfully, grown from a problem facing Black people to a problem threatening our society and even our species. People’s voices need to be heard. Enough is enough. We are doing too much harm to one another abiding within systemically racist constructs.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
We built our scaled-conversation platform, Thoughtexchange, to make groups gooder. And what we meant by that was we knew leaders would make better decisions with more buy-in when they accessed as many voices as possible and learned what mattered most. As we were iterating on our platform, we came to understand the power of removing bias and uncovering common ground between people by ensuring they consider and react to the thoughts of one another without considering the skin color, gender, authority, expertise etc of the person who shared the thought.
For the past 10 years we have worked with thousands of leaders to help them improve their decisions and organizations by including as many diverse voices as possible as often as possible.
Due to the nature of our product we are involved in many important DE+I projects. We are proud to support large corporations asking thousands of people how they can better support their Black team members and how they can become more diverse and inclusive organizations. In the public sector, we’ve helped leaders involve tens of thousands of voices, most typically unheard, in decisions such as school safety, managing remote work and serving challenged populations during the pandemic. In all of these cases, diverse voices are included in decisions and powerful personal development is taken on by the leaders who need to improve on their ability to be open to hearing people out and learning from diverse voices. Experiencing the power of including diverse voices changes you.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I think the most important reason is that it is your responsibility as a leader to maximize the performance of your organization. Organizations with diverse leadership teams and boards out-innovate and outperform organizations lacking diversity. Evidence is mounting and being published everywhere to support this reality. On a more cerebral level, since I am in the business of crowd intelligence, diversity is a requirement of the wisdom of crowds. More diverse crowds outperform less diverse crowds in problem solving. I think too often people get stalled in morality and see diversity as a “do-good thing” rather than as a competitive advantage. While I also believe diversifying your organization and senior team is the right thing to do from a moral perspective, more importantly I believe leveraging diversity is a business imperative and needs to be understood as such to accelerate anti-racism outcomes.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
1- Start with you.
Classically, when I point my finger I’ve got four pointing right back at me. I think the first and most important ingredient to creating a better society is to ask ourselves, how can I be more inclusive and equitable? What is my racist and exclusive history? When do I shut other voices down?
2 — Admit your fears
If you are going to take on the responsibility for helping create a more inclusive society, you’re going to get it wrong. That’s just the truth. Admit what you are afraid of, how you might look, what you might do wrong… and then get on with it. Either find the courage, or do it afraid.
3 — Experience the benefit of inclusion and representation somewhere, somehow, as a participant and as a leader.
I believe in experiential education to my core. It’s easy to academically agree with the power of being heard and including diverse perspectives to shape your decisions. It is something else to experience it first hand. I think you need to fight to make that happen so you can act from experience.
4 — Share that benefit with someone else
With powerful inclusion experience under your belt, do your part to express the benefit and encourage someone else to do the same. Viral marketing based on experience is a powerful tool for change.
5 — Repeat
After you do this one time you’ll obviously be a perfectly inclusive leader who responds masterfully and 100% unbiased to diverse voices at all times to ensure equity and representation in all of your decision-making, That’s a joke. Hopefully an obvious one. The point is we will all make incremental improvements and have to understand becoming an inclusive leader that helps shape the future is a process that will take time and will contain mistakes and revelations and the point is to keep moving forward, keep checking our bias and privilege, keep experiencing new benefits and keep articulating how they make us grow.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Similar to my view on pressure vs. boiling, I am optimistic because I feel global consciousness has caught on to the harmful, shortsighted agenda of racist people and systems and the pressure caused by exclusive, racist behaviour is causing action. The current disharmony in the world is simply people finally resonating with the voice and actions of people who have recognized the problems with our systems for too many years. So while I still feel progress will be slow and painful, I am optimistic more of us are at least trying to move forward in an anti-racist and inclusive direction.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Michelle Obama! Her passions for education, feeding kids, empathy and elevating the importance of diversifying senior leadership teams in tech companies are all inspirational — and — I’d love to ask her how best we can help. What conversations would she want me to ensure people are having on our platform? How can we help deconstruct polarization? So many questions…
How can our readers follow you online?
Linkedin Dave MacLeod — Thoughtexchange (https://www.linkedin.com/in/dave-macleod-41793b21/). And if my kids have their way, look for me on TikTok.